Illini Offense, Defense In Fighting Form

The Fighting Illini football team engaged in a lively and intense scrimmage inside Memorial Stadium Saturday to conclude the third week of spring football practice. Playing in front of a handsome group of prospective recruits and fans eager for postgame autographs, both the offense and defense made big plays.

The Illinois team is making improvements, and Coach Ron Zook was generally pleased with the progress so far.

"We had a pretty good week of practice, and we've gotten better. We've got to keep doing it."

The scrimmage was split up into a variety of situations, so there was little semblance to an actual game. There was scrimmage work, but third downs, red zone, goal line, and two minute drills were also emphasized. Both the offense and defense made plays.

The defense continued showing the intensity that has marked it's play this past week. After giving up an early score on the first drive of the game, it buckled down and took the fight to the offense. Players afterward were unanimous in stating the defense is playing with the fire it showed two years ago but was missing last year.

Tackle totals were distributed among a large number of performers. Safety Garrett Edwards and linebackers Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas led the defense with 6 tackles each. Edwards and Thomas each had sacks on the day, and Martez made some big hits.

Linebackers Evan Friersen, Nate Bussey and Russ Ellington and cornerback Travon Bellamy added five tackles apiece, while linebacker Aaron Gress had four. Friersen was credited with a sack among his five tackles.

Defensive end Antonio James was credited with 3 sacks totaling nine yards in losses. Tackles Rahkeem Smith and Corey Liuget had sacks as well. There were no interceptions on the day. Ian Thomas and walkon cornerback Nattiel Perkins broke up pass attempts, although they were not credited on the official stats.

Most of all, the defense was in a fighting mood. In fact, a couple brief skirmishes broke out, with several more in the almost category. While the players understand that is incorrect behavior in a game that counts, there is sufficient competition in practice to benefit both sides. It is that type of intensity that can make an above average team into an outstanding team.

The offense looked in good form on its opening drive as quarterback Juice Williams led his team confidently down the field. Mikel Leshoure gained 26 yards in four carries, his big play being an 18 yard burst. Jason Ford added five yards in two carries, and Jarred Fayson ran for five more. Juice hit A.J. Jenkins for 8 yards and hit Jeff Cumberland for 17 more, his only catch on the day. Juice optioned the final 8 yards for the score.

The defense dominated for a lengthy period thereafter, but the offense began to get its confidence back late in the scrimmage. In red zone work, Juice hit Chris Duvalt for a brilliant 20 yard touchdown. Duvalt appeared to be covered completely by safety Ashante Williams but put on an extra burst and a dive to grab the ball near the turf. Chris said afterward that Juice put the ball in the only spot possible to create the reception.

The longest play from scrimmage was a bomb from Juice to A.J. Jenkins, who caught it in full stride and outraced Supo Sanni to the end zone. Ford scored on a two yard burst in goal line work. Matt Eller finally made a field goal by bouncing it off an upright, but he and Derek Dimke each missed their other field goal attempts.

In other notable action, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui caught a Juice pass over the middle and ran over the tackle of Bo Flowers to complete a 21 yard gain. Jacob Charest hit tight end London Davis for 11 yards, and he split two defenders in completing a pass for 27 yards to Jack Ramsey down the sideline.

Also, Eddie McGee found Cordale Scott for 15 yards. Juice hit Leshoure for 19 on a third and four situation. Ford's biggest run was for 19 yards. And McGee had an 18 yard scramble and would have picked up big yardage on several other runs had the defense been required to tackle him.

Overall, Juice Williams completed 12 of 15 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns. McGee had just two completions in 9 attempts for 24 yards. He struggled against the number one defense and was flushed from the pocket repeatedly. Charest was a successful 5 of 6 for 45 yards in limited action.

Jenkins led the receivers with 66 yards in four receptions. Ramsey and Duvalt had three catches each. Ford led the rushers with 60 yards in 12 carries. Leshoure added 37 in 7, while McGee was credited with 27 yards in 12 carries and Williams had 22 yards in 11 carries.

Troy Pollard saw his first contact of the spring after hurting his knee early the first week. Daniel Dufrene added 10 yards running as he is rounding into shape after a hamstring pull. Defensive tackle Sirod Williams saw live contact for the first time after sitting out all last fall with knee surgery. On the down side, Jarred Fayson hurt his foot, and his status for next week's final scrimmage is uncertain.

Coach Zook was uncertain about the format for the final scrimmage. There is still much work to do this next week.

"This weekend, we've got to go back and reevaluate exactly where we are and what we have to do to finish up. We want to make sure we accomplish our goals and keep on track so we can tie it up this week. It will be a busy week, and we need to focus and finish strong."


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